From the Mailbag: College Admissions, College Athletes, and Early Exits



Every week, I write a brief newsletter to the parents of students come into our Green Ivy office or who work with us over Skype. I include a personal note as well as a few interesting articles (I also write a larger weekly e-newsletter for a much wider audience). This week, I was pretty excited about the Duke men’s basketball’s NCAA championship win, so my introductory paragraph went something like this:

Last night, Duke won the men’s basketball national championship in a game that will likely go down as one of the classic close games in college basketball history. As an alumna, I have a natural bias, and was fortunate to attend a few games this season, and I was consistently impressed at what a true team this group of young men seemed to be. Fearless, humble, and hungry – their play is a great metaphor for life. They were unselfish, they were scrappy, and they were resilient and focused. Even if you are not a college basketball fan, their story is worth following.  Especially around setting goals and visualizing, as freshman guard Tyus Jones called this outcome last year. Coach K called them the best team he’s coached in 40 years in terms of being a true team.

A few hours later, I received this response from a parent:

I understand your excitement as a Duke alum, but I find it ironic that as an educator you suggest we look to the Duke University basketball team freshman as role models for our children.  These men are attending an elite university due to their outstanding basketball skills and most likely did not have the same academic credentials as other qualified students. They use that privilege as a stepping-stone to jump directly to the NBA and to completely disregard their education. This is not who I want my kids looking up to.

I heard Coach K interviewed this morning on the Today Show and when Matt Lauer asked him if he should put Duke as the winner for the next few years in his bracket he made it clear that it probably wasn’t a wise decision since the freshman are unlikely to stay.

I have been a long time college basketball fan and there are a lot of wonderful lessons to learn from the game but praising the lessons of Duke’s great “teamwork” when the real lesson to be taught is that the “other” team had an All American player that certainly could have turned pro but instead decided to honor his commitment to his school and his team by returning for his senior year. 

Next time I encourage you to please be more sensitive to what you are advocating to your students and clients.

I responded, and then this morning woke up and drafted longer response with a few additional paragraphs and serves as today’s blog post:

Thanks so much for your feedback. I truly appreciate the time you took to write, and while I think my point may have been misinterpreted, I can definitely understand how that may have struck a nerve. My focus was certainly not that these young men should be role models – true role models tend to reside closer to home. But I was reminded of a lot of life lessons over the course of the season, and especially in the final two games. Did you watch? It was fairly incredible.

That being said, students get accepted to schools for a variety of reasons. And, students leave school for a variety of reasons – they can’t afford school and need to work, their start-up gets funded (!), etc. Of interesting note (since you suggested athletes do not likely have the same academic credentials as other students) – legacy students, or students whose parents or grandparents attended a university, also account for a disproportionate percentage of acceptances at most schools, including the Ivy League – and those students’ academic numbers tend to be less stellar than their accepted peers. So do students whose families are seen to be of interest to “university development,” as in, their families can help support initiatives or buildings with significant financial donations. A school also might be looking for an amazing oboe player, and admit a student whose academic “numbers” don’t exactly match up because of that singular talent. This is not to say that one student is more or less worthy than another, but it is to say that there are a lot of reasons college admissions are totally skewed. The book I suggested by Frank Bruni goes into this in great depth. I found the book incredibly relevant and encourage it to all families whose children are applying to college soon.

As an educator, I am hopeful that all young people will have the opportunity to graduate from college, as research studies repeatedly suggest that a college diploma makes a big difference in overall lifetime wellness. To note, the Duke men’s basketball team has a much higher graduation rate than the Wisconsin men’s basketball team over the most recently reported period. At the same time, I am not in a place to judge young people’s decisions, nor do I blame nineteen year olds for wanting to leave school early to make money. After all, young people have also left school to work on start-ups – Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates are probably the most notable, but it’s happening more and more in the Silicon Valley today.

In terms of college admissions, a school’s athletic success often goes far beyond the athletic fields or courts in promoting the overall “brand” of a university, especially in revenue producing sports like basketball and football. Take tiny Butler University – after it’s NCAA men’s basketball Final Four appearances, applications to the school increased over 40%. This marked increase in applications is pretty standard at most schools after a successful football or men’s basketball season, and like it or not, often makes a school appear more selective and prestigious. More applications usually means a lower acceptance rate and perhaps a higher yield rate, and percentages contribute to a school’s overall rankings on several well-known lists. From my own experience working with students, I frequently have students who tell me they want to apply to a school because they “heard it’s a good school.” When I press a little further, students typically reveal they don’t know that much about the school other than friends go there, the school is ranked highly on one list or another, and/or the school has a successful athletic team. In many cases, a school’s prestige factor (rightfully or not) increases after a successful athletic run.

There are several different factors contributing to early college eligibility exits of talented college basketball players, and I am certainly not an expert on the nuances. Many argue that NBA draft eligibility rules contribute to the “one and done” environment. NBA commissioner Adam Silver (also a Duke alum!) wants to change that to encourage longer college enrollment and higher graduation rates, and what happens remains to be seen. At the same time, many athletes at schools around the country “work” thousands of hours and contribute to their school’s earning tens to hundreds of millions of dollars in television revenue and sponsorship fees. Yet, as amateur athletes, they can not earn any of that income in accordance with NCAA rules (when schools follow the rules). Their athletic scholarships and education are certainly worth a great deal (priceless in my mind!) but an economist would probably say it doesn’t add up.

Do I think most nineteen year-olds are better off staying in college than going to the NBA from a personal growth perspective? Absolutely. I’ve spent nearly 15 years working with young people as a coach and an educator, and know that a rich college experience is far more developmentally appropriate for most of them. A nurturing college experience can, in some ways, be like a protected cocoon – lots of wonderful mentors and late-night conversations and challenging reflections can provide a greater opportunity for a young person to develop as an individual and as an athlete. This is particularly true for young men, who are one to three years behind their female counterparts in terms of brain development, and whose brains are still developing until they are about twenty-four years old. Through my experience working with athletes, I recognize the travel and rigor of professional sports can quickly become a lonely place at a grueling pace – especially if a young person lacks the guidance and support of positive mentors and clarifiers.

At the same time, I also happen to be the child of immigrants who placed the importance of education above all else. My parents sacrificed to send me to college, and their beaming pride when I graduated is a vision I readily remember. But, if someone offered me millions of dollars when I was nineteen or twenty years old, I might have considered working, paying off my parents’ mortgage, making sure they were set for retirement, and then finishing my degree. That was certainly never a decision I had to wrestle with, so I don’t pretend to know what that’s like. As an educator and coach, I do my best and step back without judgment, as my goal has long been to help each person find his or her individual blueprint for success. I tend to ask open-ended questions without expectation, because I know no one plan or timeline works for every person.

It is certainly a complicated and complex issue with so many variables, and I can appreciate that we share different views.  In no way was my intention to offend you, and I am sorry the original post caused such a negative reaction.


2 thoughts on “From the Mailbag: College Admissions, College Athletes, and Early Exits”

  1. Ana,

    Thank you for taking the time to frame up this issue. This Duke team was particularly inspiring. Throughout the tournament, I kept saying aloud to myself–Man, I want the confidence, resilience, and focus of these freshmen! I learned a lot from watching them play together, adapt to different teams, and remain calm under pressure, especially down 9 with 12 minutes to play the championship.

    In universities, we need people with complementary skills and talents and ambitions who share a passion for learning. This Duke team definitely had a passion for learning to get better throughout the season, and I’m proud of them.

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